The Shield of Achilles: by W. H. Auden - Summary & Analysis

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      The Shield of Achilles was first published in Poetry in October 1952, was later included in the volume of poems entitled, The shield of Achilles and in the Collected Shorter Poems. The Shield of Achilles is the title poem in the collection. The shield here symbolizes an image of the human condition.

      The lyric is divided into three parts, and each part consists of three stanzas. Thus there are nine stanzas in all. In the first two parts, first stanza is in short lines, sing-song, with Homeric pentametre; the next two stanzas are in longer lines, invariably iambic pentameter. In the third part, there is a slight difference. There is only one stanza - the second stanza - in iambic pentameter, the third stanza with which the lyric closes, again being sing-song with Homeric echoes. Hephaestus made the long shield of Achilles, on which was inscribed the beauties of the Greek world. This reminds us of the Grecian urn which inspired Keats to write a memorable Ode.

      It is a fine lyrical poem in which Auden puts the classical myth of Achilles and his shield to the service of his art as a modern poet to bring out the contrast between the heroic past and the unheroic present.

      Thetis looks for the classical virtues on her son's shield. She looks for order and Government but finds only its negative image, a spiritless totalitarianism, she looks for religion but finds only a military execution parodying the crucifixion; she looks for art, and finds only an aimless violence.

The Shield of Achilles was first published in Poetry October 1952, was later included in the volume of poems entitled, The shield of Achilles and in the Collected Shorter Poems. The Shield of Achilles is the title poem in the collection. The shield here symbolizes an image of the human condition.
The Shield of Achilles


      In the first lyric, Auden has described the Homeric Shield of Achilles, On which the brightness and beauty of the Greek world have been inscribed. The vines, olive trees, marble statues, well-administered cities with ships sailing in the seas are the beauty of the Greek world. This beauty of the Greek world is then contrasted with the ugly shield of the modern world. On this shield, it is inscribed that "An artificial wilderness and a sky like lead". The emptiness and hollowness of the modern society is indicated in this inscriptions.

      In the first stanza, there is a picture of the modern waste-land. We get a picture of the plain which is totally barren without any feature or a blade of grass. There is nothing to eat and no place to sit and rest. This is the modern waste land, full of crowds, who like dumb-driven cattle are unable to think for themselves, and mechanically carry out the dictates of their leaders and rulers.

      The same idea of modern waste-land continues in the second stanza, which contains war-imagery.

      The dictators have no personal contact with them. They speak to them in an impersonal voice, over the radio. They, in the most dry and rough tone justified the cause that made him order his forces, to wage a war. The soldiers moved "column by column", raising a cloud of dust, "enduring a belief / whose logic brought them, some where else, to grief". In the second part of the lyric, the religious decay and desolation in the modern age have been commented upon. The shield of Achilles is described. On the shield of Achilles, there was a portrait showing the serving of wine in honor of God with all ritual pieties: "Where flower Garlanded heifers, Libation and sacrifice". But on the other hand, on the shining metal of the modern shield, there was a mockery of crucifixion of Christ or of religion, which presented quite another scene. Auden says that there is no place for religion and faith in the modern society. In the modern age there is merely the spiritual degeneration of the contemporary waste-landers, who are helpless and spiritless, allow themselves to be treated and massacred like dumb cattle.

      The next stanza presents the picture of a concentration camp in Germany, where bored officials cracked jokes when Christ was crucified. A crowd of ordinary, but good, people watched from outside the concentration camp the mockery of crucifixion: "To three pale figures were led forth and bound to three posts driven upright in the ground."

      The ordinary people of this world are like a mass of weight without any individual conscience and initiative. They are at the mercy of others. So these people watched patiently the mockery of crucifixion without raising any finger. They were cowards: 'Cowards die many times before their death'.

      In the last part, the impression of the lover's experience being an illusion or something like an illusion seems to be established. And here the lover seems to utter something which sounds like a prayer, a deep wish coming from the depths of his heart. In this part we are told that on the Homeric shield, the carved pictures were of athletes busy in their games, and men and women dancing rhythmically and sweetly. On the modern shield on the other hand, there are no dancing floors playgrounds but only 'weed-choked' fields. There are no sportsman but only 'rugged-urchin' callously throwing stones at birds, or girls being raped, or boys quarreling among themselves and knifing each other. Life is brutal and beastly. It entirely lacks sympathy, love and friendship. This contemporary scene terrifies Thetis and the lyric ends as she goes away crying with dismay.

Critical Appreciation and Analysis

      In this poem, Auden adheres to simplicity. The speaker in the poem, remains everywhere sober, but avoids both high elevation and the low conversational sobriety of meditative verse. Auden in this poem expresses emotion directly, with even greater simplicity. For this reason, Auden creates a song-like style.

      In this fine lyrical poem, Auden handles the myth appropriately in underlying the desolation, cruelty and uninspiring barrenness of the contemporary scene. Thus myth has been worked to a deep significance. Thetis, the mother of Achilles, the warrior of classical antiquity, looks for the familiar scenes of adventure, art, seafaring and "well-governed cities" on the shield of Achilles but finds instead a landscape punctuated with the sights of a bare field filled with a multitude of soldiers waiting for the command of their general on the loudspeaker in a dry passionless voice. They followed the command and..

Column by column in a cloud of dust
They marched away enduring a belief
whose logic brought them, somewhere else, to grief,

      Instead of finding the scenes of "ritual pieties / white flower-garlanded heifers" (reminiscent of Keats Grecian Urn), she finds a scene of a concentration camp in an unknown place where

Three pale figures were led forth and bound
To three posts driven upright in the ground.

      Auden in this lyrical poem has stripped of war's romantic glamour and seen for what it is a collective horror. Whereas attention is on the "unintelligible multitude", who are in line / without expression, waiting for a sign". Through these devices Auden suggests that was in no longer heroic, no longer plays up individual glory but has become a collective callousness.

      In this lyric Auden has used the mythical technique popularised by T.S. Eliot, to make his comment on the modern condition. The mythical method consists in juxtaposing the past and the present, the past serving as a comment, on the present. The past is contrasted with the present, the similarities between the two are stressed, and in this way, some particular experience or situation is universalized. But the difference is also stressed and in this way, the decadence and desolation of the contemporary world is brought out. In this poem, Auden employs the technique of applying a classical myth to the presentation of the contemporary scene. The myth serves to enhance the contrast between the past rich with its values, order and artistic achievements and the present characterized by spiritual and artistic barrenness and aimless violence.

      Auden also uses stanzas of longer lines with iambic pentameter and stanzas of shorter lines which are lyrical.

      To quote Justin Raplogle, In The Shield of Achilles Auden tries something very rare for him, simplicity. The poet remains every where sober, but avoids both high elevation and the low conversational sobriety of meditative verse. He still declaims, but now with the dignity of simplicity: the dignity of simplicity:

A crowd of ordinary decent folk
Watched from without and neither moved nor spoke
As three pale figures were led forth and bound.

      To create a song-like style Auden expresses emotion directly with simplicity.

Men and women in a dance
Moving their sweet limbs
Quick, Quick, to music.

      The style remains by and large laconic. The imagery employed to depict the richness of the past and the destitution of the present is effective and serves to underline the contrast which is an important impact of the poem. In its technique and concern, the poem is typically modern.


      Auden in this lyrical poem The shield of Achilles has telescoped the whole ages of history within the compass of small lyrics, and commented, upon the spiritual decay and desolation in the modern age.

      To quote Manroe K. Spears, "... the shield symbolizes art, images of the human condition. Auden's version, however, is mock-heroic, contrasting the Homeric description to the life the modern artist must represent. In the shield of art Hephaestus (the artist) shows Thetis (the audience) not the classical city but the plain of modern life on which multitudes are ordered about by totalitarian rulers (a faceless voice reciting statistics through a loudspeaker). Instead of the 'ritual pieties', we have barbed wire enclosing an 'arbitrary spot' where there is a travesty of crucifixion being performed by bureaucrats while ordinary decent folk watch, in which helpless individuals are shamefully deprived of human dignity before death".

     In the past also there was much cruelty. Christ was crucified, but the crucifixion was necessary for the regeneration and redemption of mankind. It was martyrdom. But the mass-killing in the modern age carry no such significance. They are merely a measure of the spiritual degeneration of the contemporary waste landers, who helpless and spiritless allow themselves to be treated and massacred like the cattle who are dumb.

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